With four aces, the Philadelphia Phillies are all in. Because if this is the Year of the Pitcher yet again, then Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and their pals should breeze into the World Series bracket and wind up in a parade down Broad Street.
Obviously, the Phils are kings of the hill. Heck, Logan Morrison seemed shocked that someone even bothered to ask him during a Twitter chat for their No. 1 weakness.
“They have one?” the 23-year-old Florida outfielder barbed. “Thought they were the best team ever.”
Baseball 2011 is full of fresh faces. Kyle Drabek in Toronto, Freddie Freeman in Atlanta and Jesus Montero in New York pinstripes, all hoping to become the next Buster Posey — chomping for a chance in Triple-A, then celebrating a championship in the bigs.
Lots of rookies in the dugout, too. Don Mattingly takes over the Los Angeles Dodgers, trying to prove fine players can make fine managers. In all, a dozen teams go into opening day Thursday with a different skipper than they started with last season.
Gone are Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. They retired, as did all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, top postseason winner Andy Pettitte and former World Series MVP Mike Lowell.
But there’s plenty of room for the old pros — not including Jamie Moyer, who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery and wants to pitch next season at age 49.
Derek Jeter, at 36, is coming off a down year that led to testy contract talks. Only 74 hits shy of No. 3,000, this is the first time since he was a rookie the Captain has fans wondering whether he’s still an All-Star.
Chipper Jones, at 38, is trying to bounce back from a knee injury that nearly finished him.
Jeter and Jones get early swings. There are six openers March 31, starting with Detroit at Yankee Stadium and Atlanta at Washington.
Then there’s 40-year-old Jim Thome, needing just 11 home runs to be the eighth slugger in the 600 club.
“If it happens it’d be great. It’d be a wonderful thing. Not many guys have done it. So, yeah, I respect it. The history of the game, you respect it,” Thome said. “But on the other end, man, that World Series ring is something every player should want and strive to get. I’ve been close. But just not over that hump. We’ll see. We’ll see.”
That’s how a lot of San Francisco Giants — and their orange-and-black boosters — felt going into last season. Led by whirlybird Tim Lincecum and bearded Brian Wilson, the Giants brought the trophy to the City by the Bay for the first time.
That made it nine different World Series champions in the last 10 years. And after a flurry of winter moves, no doubt a lot of teams are thinking it’s their turn. Maybe even the Chicago Cubs, trying to end a 102-year drought.
Lee tilted the balance when he became a free agent, left the AL champion Texas Rangers, turned down the Yankees’ big bucks and joined Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels in Philly. Stars Zack Greinke, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Vernon Wells, Jayson Werth, Adam Dunn and Series MVP Edgar Renteria also switched teams.
Albert Pujols stayed on the St. Louis Cardinals. The three-time NL MVP didn’t get a contract extension before he reported to spring training, and insists he will not negotiate again until after the season, when he can file for free agency.
“I already blocked it out,” he said a few days ago.
Off the field, there’s a lot to track this year.
The New York Mets’ mess with the Bernard Madoff scandal is sure to hang over the club, even if team management says it won’t. The All-Star game in Phoenix will be a politically charged event, with Commissioner Bud Selig the target of protesters upset with Arizona’s immigration law and calling for him to move the event to another state.
Major League Baseball’s deal between players and owners, meanwhile, expires in mid-December. Against the backdrop of an NFL lockout and brewing trouble in the NBA, baseball’s labor landscape seems rather serene.
“I don’t know, ‘peace’ is a relative word,” said Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard, Boston’s player representative. “It seems like everything’s happy-go-lucky and calm waters right now. But something could come up, a topic that maybe hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity that could become a big issue. But right now it seems good.”
Said Colorado manager Jim Tracy: “This game took quite a blow when we lost the World Series in 1994. No one is interested to see that again. The NHL lost a whole season and that is devastating to your sport.”
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are back in the lineup, lingering reminders of the Steroids Era.
Bonds, the seven-time NL MVP, is on trial at a federal courthouse in San Francisco. The career home run leader — Alex Rodriguez needs 150 to beat him — is accused of lying when he told a grand jury in 2003 he never knowingly took steroids.
Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young winner, is set to go on trial July 6 in federal court in Washington on three counts of making false statements, two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of Congress stemming from his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.
By then, the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates probably will be far apart. The Phillies have won four straight NL East crowns and led the big leagues with 97 wins last year; the Pirates absorbed a majors-worst 105 defeats in 2010 and have endured 18 straight losing seasons.
Listen to their stars, though, and they’re talking about the same thing.
“A lot of us are to the point in our career where you feel like the biggest thing left for you to do is win a championship, whether you’ve already done it or you haven’t,” Halladay said. “That’s why I still want to play this game. I want to be part of a world championship team.”
Echoed Pirates youngster Andrew McCutchen: “What I’m looking for is a championship with this team.”
“It’s not like I’m going, ‘I want to make the All-Star team. I want to have a Gold Glove.’ It would be nice, but if we’re a championship team, everything else will take care of itself,” he said.
Also worth noting in 2011:
—Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Jake Peavy and Grady Sizemore are coming back from season-ending operations. Chase Utley is ailing, as is Carlos Beltran. Injured Adam Wainwright is out for the year and phenom Stephen Strasburg is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
—Florida plays its last season at Sun Life Stadium, where the Marlins won two championships at a ballpark also known as Joe Robbie Stadium, Pro Player Stadium, Dolphin Stadium and Land Shark Stadium, among other names. Next year, they move into a downtown stadium in Miami where the Orange Bowl once stood.
—Fenway Park welcomes the Chicago Cubs for the first time since the 1918 World Series on May 20. Interleague play started in 1997, but because of scheduling quirks the Cubs had not visited Boston.
AP Baseball Writer Jon Krawczynski, AP Sports Writers Steven Wine, Rob Maaddi and R.B. Fallstrom, and AP freelance writers Rick Eymer and Maureen Mullen contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
Ben Walker/The Associated Press